Analysis: Labour and the unions

Labour’s summit with its trade union backers was overshadowed by leadership speculation and accusations of a return to the 1970’s, when strikes paralysed the country.

But what actually went on behind the closed doors of the party’s policy forum in the less-than-idyllic surroundings of Warwick University? The decisions made here could constitute a significant chunk of future legislation, so it’s worth taking the time to discover what was said outside of the more fascinating, hard-edged world of leadership plots.

Nevertheless, the first question you should ask is ‘Why should I care?’

The weekend’s policy decisions – which will still need to be properly formulated in Westminster and then passed in the party convention – will probably find their way into the Labour manifesto. But for anything in that manifesto to become law, Labour has to win a fourth term and that doesn’t look likely.

Well, firstly, the results of the next election aren’t written in stone, and there’s always a chance – slim though it might be – the party somehow recover from their current electoral horror story.

More importantly, the decisions give some decent indication of how the relationship between the unions and Labour is going. It’s a relationship that hasn’t experience this degree of scrutiny since Tony Blair took over.

Once Mr Blair’s way of securing funding – opportune tennis matches with rich men and Lord Levy – went the way of the dodo, Labour had to return to its roots by desperately clinging to the unions as a main source of funding.

This has got the Tories and right-wing press going. Doom-laden forecasts of a return to ‘old’ Labour and massively empowered unions emanated from Tory HQ incessantly while the party was in Warwick. Do any of these stand up to scrutiny?

Well, the short answer is no. Not really.

Labour went into the forum with a set of red lines, not dissimilar to those it attached to negotiations over the EU treaty just over a year ago. The government knew it couldn’t withstand headlines of being in the unions’ pockets and it looks as if they stuck to their guns pretty diligently.

Nothing was passed which makes strikes easier. If you don’t believe Labour on that one just look to the Tories who would have been screaming blue murder – literally – if they’d spotted anything of the sort. The push for allowing sympathy strikes – where a second location or industry go on strike in solidarity with another – seems to have gone nowhere. There were no tax commitments, including no changes on the top rate of income tax.

Talk to a Labour delegate and you can hear the relief in their voice when they tell you how those proposals were beaten back while ensuring unions’ financial support stays solidly in place. Not only that, but the unions explicitly endorsed the party’s direction of travel, including some of the more contentious aspects of its counter-terrorism strategy.

ID cards got union backing, as did 42-day detention. The Darzi health reforms were accepted, and so were James Purnell’s tough new welfare reforms.

If the unions were more militant they could have surely done better than this. Without union money, Labour would be devastated. More devastated than they already are. And yet all strike and income distribution topics – the bread-and-butter of union strategy – were discarded, while Labour’s public sector, welfare and counter-terror programmes – the bread-and-butter of its government strategy – were accepted wholesale.

But that’s not quite the full story. What the unions appear to have done is focused their sights on several attainable goals – moderate goals of the sort which won’t provoke a backlash. But take a step back and the areas of agreement look sensible and even decent.

Real ground was made on getting the government to address deaths in the construction industry, which currently stand at around 70 a year. An inquiry will be launched into the deaths and options weighed up, including strengthening laws and introducing mandatory health and safety duties on company directors.

The minimum wage will be extended to 21 year olds – its current trigger is someone’s 22nd birthday. Service staff have good reasons to be cheerful as well, with early moves to make sure tips don’t count towards paying them the minimum wage originating in Warwick and expected to be endorsed by the conference.

More flexible working arrangements will be introduced, with unpaid parental leave extended until the child is 16 and different ways to urge employers to act more reasonably on non-medical emergency leave being considered.

There was also a commitment to create one million ‘green collar’ jobs in renewables and the green industry. Yes, ‘green collar jobs’ is one of those achingly painful PR terms some bright spark in Westminster thought up recently, but some of the plans look radical and exciting, if your concerned about this type of thing. The increase in jobs in this area will be targeting towards improving green infrastructure – setting up public recharge points for a future generation of electric cars, for instance.

So you’re left with a solid set of centre-left proposals, which you could genuinely say represent the interests of union members but deny the Tories any ammunition with which to beat Labour – and therefore also the unions.

Whether any of these policies will ever see the light of day is another matter, of course. But as the two main parties continue to steal each other’s policies, you might see some of them feature in a centrist Tory manifesto before the next election.

Ian Dunt